Last month AstraZeneca said it is shuttering an Indian research site as it moves away from neglected diseases to focus on areas with more potential for growth. With the site shutdown, the company plans to pull out of early-stage research on tropical diseases, tuberculosis and malaria but spare AZD5847, a TB treatment currently in Phase II development.
The move is a hit to global tuberculosis R&D, which received $10 million from AstraZeneca ($AZN) in 2012, making the London-headquartered drugmaker the third biggest private funder in global TB research, according to the New York-based Treatment Action Group.
Combined with Pfizer's ($PFE) pullout in anti-infectives last year, the number of private investors in TB R&D has now been cut in half, according to Erica Lessem, assistant director of the Treatment Action Group's TB/HIV Project.
"What may seem like a small investment for AstraZeneca is a big impact to the field," Lessem told FierceBiotech Research in an interview.
Before the flight of AstraZeneca and Pfizer from the field, TB R&D was already shrinking. Annual spending on R&D for TB dropped by $30.4 million in 2012 compared to 2011, according to a November 2013 report by the Treatment Action Group.
The private sector's departure from preclinical TB research could leave a hole in the drug development pipeline, which has nothing in Phase I development. In December 2012, the FDA approved its first tuberculosis drug in more than 40 years--Janssen's Sirturo.
Lessem says that while public sector funding of neglected diseases is still a main driver of early-stage research, industry support is important because public institutions don't have as much experience bringing products to market.
On the clinical side, Janssen and Otsuka are the two remaining large industry players invested in developing new TB drugs.
Some advocacy groups have been more critical of pharmaceutical companies for leaving the neglected disease field. "This move by AstraZeneca is incredibly discouraging and is very bad news for people in developing countries. AstraZeneca are just cementing big pharma's reputation that they invest in drugs only for rich countries," said Dr. Manica Balasegaram, executive director of Doctors Without Borders' Access Campaign, in a statement.